MONDAY, DECEMBER 12 & FRIDAY, DECEMER 16:
Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe & Beginning of Posadas Navidenas
Mexican Americans are the vital backbone of a reviving Catholic Church in many regions of the United States. Catholic leaders planning for ministry and church growth in this new decade of the 21st Century routinely urge clergy and lay leaders to do one thing: Learn Spanish. Some of the most exciting and colorful expressions of Christianity in the U.S. are imports from the South. This week welcomes two of the most vivid: the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the beginning of Las Posadas, a traditional Latino-American community-wide festival of the birth of Jesus.
Millions of Catholics mark feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
MONDAY, DECEMBER 12: Even the late Pope John Paul II made a personal effort to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, recognizing the powerful inspiration this iconic Catholic story of Mary’s appearance provides for millions across the Americas.
Among the many expressions of this annual holy day: Thousands carry torches in processions or carry copies of the miraculous Guadalupe icon in parades; countless families pray the Ave Maria; and millions will visit Mexico City to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Guadalupe story attracts so many—popes like John Paul II have said—because it recalls a miraculous connection between God, through Mary’s appearance, and the humblest of the poor in the Americas. According to traditional accounts, Mary imprinted her image on a poor peasant’s cloak, called a tilma, and pilgrims are able to see the miraculous image to this day. Catholic leaders acknowledge that, without the Virgin Mary, Mexico might never have adopted Christianity in such an overwhelming way.
The Catholic story begins on Dec. 9. 1531, when a poor peasant named Juan Diego was walking to Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. While walking, Diego experienced a vision of a young woman dressed like an Aztec princess. (Learn more from CatholicCulture and AmericanCatholic.) This young woman explained that she, the Virgin Mary of the Christian faith and the prime goddess of the Aztec faith, were one and the same. She asked Diego to enlist the local bishop in assistance building a basilica in her honor. When the bishop asked for proof of Diego’s vision, he returned to the place where he’d first seen the young woman, and she pointed to a nearby bush of roses for him to bring to the bishop; when Diego came before the bishop and opened his cloak, the roses fell out and a perfect image of the young woman was miraculously emblazoned on his cloak. The day was Dec. 12, 1531.
In the tragic and turbulent early era of Spanish conquest of the “New World,” efforts to convert native families to Christianity proved largely ineffective. After all, the Spanish newcomers had killed many, enslaved many more and spread diseases that wiped out entire villages. Christianity was a tough sell in such circumstances! It seemed to be a faith reserved for rich and ruthless conquerors. Then, in 1531, news spread of Juan Diego’s miracle and the people in what is today Mexico converted in droves.
Now, almost 500 years later, the cloak and image appear to be in near perfect condition, despite the fact that the course cactus fibers of the cloak should have begun to disintegrate after 20 years. Studies of the cloak supposedly show that the image was made in one stroke, and Mary’s pupils reflect the Indians and clergy present at the time of the revelation of the image. (Wikipedia has details.) It’s also been concluded that, when the image is enlarged, the stars on Mary’s mantle are arranged just as the way they would have appeared in Mexico in the night sky in December of 1531.
Traditions abound today, such as the annual trek from Mexico City to New York that enlists thousands of torch carriers to transport fire to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in time for Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast. (DelawareOnline has a story.) Staying home? Check out AllRecipes’ Top 20 Mexican recipes.
Hispanic communities open doors for 9-day Las Posadas
STARTS FRIDAY, DECEMBER 16: Mexican-Americans aren’t the only ethnic group to bring out decorations, serve tasty treats and open their doors in this traditional nine-day period of commuity-wide visiting to remember the birth of Jesus. The roots of Las Posadas lie in Spain and, today in the Americas, the custom is popular in various Hispanic communities. Overall, though, Las Posadas is most vividly associated with Mexican-Americans.
The term Posadas refers to “accommodation,” and the focus is on a nine-day demonstration of hospitality symbolic of the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy and her search with Joseph for a place to stay in Bethlehem. The biblical account of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem is turned into a dialogue re-enacted in doorways of neighbors—often ending with plenty of festive foods served to all.
In one English-language version of the Posadas exchange, a home owner finds a local band of “pilgrims” on the doorstep and initially insists that he has no room to accommodate visitors. Then, the host begins to realize that these are sacred travelers. Finally, his heart opens—along with his doorway—and the host says: “Enter, blessed pilgrims, my house is your own. Praise be to God on the throne! Please come in! Please come in!”
Since Las Posadas fits well in warm climates, this tradition is particularly common in parts of California. This week, Mary’s and Joseph’s trek will be reenacted in elaborate fashion in Escondido, Poway and Old Town San Diego, where the event is the largest in the county. For more than 60 years, the public has been invited to the reenactments and asked to sing Christmas carols, carry candles and follow the procession. (Read more in the NCTimes.)
Want to try a Las Posadas liturgy where you live? Here’s a handy, free resource: The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina provides this free-to-download packet on How to Celebrate a Mexican Posadas for Lay Leaders, Musicians and Clergy.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.